Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – Movie Review

into the spiderverse

The worlds of superhero movies and superhero comics are not as similar as they seem on the surface. Currently, film studios are all about the “extended universe”, seeing how many different titles and characters they can shove into one franchise (Avengers, X-Men, Justice League), making for an easy way to squeeze a few extra bucks out of their lesser known properties. Comics have this as well, of course. However, they also have something modern movies haven’t really tapped into yet: story one-offs, a chance for a storyteller to create a unique tale and not be constrained by the implications on or from the larger universe. Spider-Verse gets to do just that, while playfully taking on the fun (if convoluted) absurdity of extended superhero universes. Listen, I hear you. “How could we possibly need another Spider-Man movie?” Spider-Verse understands that question and has a take on it. Yes, Peter Parker is here. In fact, there are two Peter Parkers. There’s also a Spider-Woman, a Noir Spider-Man, an anime Spider-Girl/Robot, and a Spider-Pig. At the center though is Miles Morales, an Afro-Hispanic Brooklyn teen who must help these other Spider-People get back to their own planes of existence. He fights with his cop dad, he adores his shady uncle, hates being simply the smartest kid in the room, and just wants to do something that matters. Being Spider-Man wasn’t his idea, but hey, when a radioactive spider gives you powers, what choice do you have? Look, I don’t have any sort of hot take on this movie. It looks great, the humor pops with surprises, the voice casting is beyond perfect. It’s simply a stylishly exciting and refreshingly unique take on the superhero genre, and sometimes that’s more than enough.

 

4 out of 5 stars

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Wonder Woman (2017) – Movie Review

wonder woman

In 2015, the post-credits zinger for Marvel’s Ant-Man had Evangeline Lily’s heroine, the Wasp, promised her own super suit. Her retort: “It’s about damn time.” The world echoed her sentiments. And waited. But alas: you snooze you lose, Marvel. Wonder Woman is here, loud, proud, heartfelt, and almost absurdly fun. Not to mention: in the super-super-saturated cinemas of late, it’s the first female-led superhero film in 13(?!) years? Suddenly Wasp’s pithy barb feels like the understatement of the century.

If we’re going to continue to play the Marvel card (and we should, for Wonder Woman is more akin to the MCU’s bright, mischievously fun fare than any of its sombre, melodramatic, ludicrously unironic DC precedents), director Patty Jenkins magpies the best bits of Captain America and Thor into a robustly satisfying romp. It’s a lot to juggle, simultaneously sating the twin bastions of feminism and fun in the rare superhero film expected to be About Something, but Jenkins, drawing upon nearly 80 years of fandom and iconography, is rightly confident. Her social commentary streak is as hearty as her flair for fun, and she gamely plunges into the film’s WWI setting as a potent vehicle for one of the genre’s most potent explorations of the ethics of action combat. Jenkins juxtaposing the sparkling, saturated sapphire colour scheme of Diana’s Amazon island with the sepia soot on the war-torn outside world (and just when we’d been enjoying a welcome break from the gloomy DC greys…) which succinctly feeds into Diana’s indictment of human cruelty. A superhero film sincere enough to advocate for empathy and benevolent compassion instead of revenge, justice, or simply violence? It’s a core moral streak so puppy-eyed and earnest it would verge on cornball were it not sold with a ferocious fervour heartfelt enough to trigger twinges of guilty reflection in between bites of popcorn. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.

But, paradoxically, in spite of this effective call for compassion… there’s almost never been a movie where watching someone punch things has felt so goddamn awesome. Jenkins uncorks action interludes with a zippy abandon, as balletic as they are concussively cathartic, so stupendously fun that you shouldn’t be surprised to see audience members unconsciously swept to their feet with the infectious, heady momentum (Robin Wright, in particular, nearly steals the show with a functional cameo just by making ass-kicking in a leather miniskirt look so ferociously cool). Paired with the crisply perfect period wartime décor, and especially when accompanied by her exhilarating and impossibly catchy guitar riff, Wonder Woman is the first superhero film in years where the fight scenes, rather than merely pleasant diversions, are moving, almost overwhelmingly endorphin-flooding experiences. The mere memory of Diana crumbling a clock tower or flattening a roof with single blows, or granted her very own Éowyn moment by storming into no man’s land (get it?) is enough to bring shivers of magnificence.

And that’s when the shoe drops, and the ‘women only Texas screening’-shaped elephant in the room rears its head: we’ve had decades for the exuberance of men hitting things to wear off. Wonder Woman reminds us of how much fun it can be to watch WOMEN hitting things, and how desperately rare it is. Mercilessly scrutinized under the gender policing microscope, Jenkins, cannily, doesn’t oversell her gender politics. Instead, she calmly naturalizes them by steering the film through Diana’s headstrong, take-no-sh*t character, with each feminist beat emerging naturally through her personality. It’s oodles more effective than any polarizing, dogmatic diatribe, and yields many of the film’s moments of sneaky humour. One aside in particular, where an exasperated Diana condemns petticoats and skirts for impeding high-kicks, instantly cements itself as an iconic reprieve of solidarity for women’s dressing rooms for the next century.

Still, a Wonder Woman film would be moot without the right Gal in the lead. Here, it’s indisputably clear that it’s been worth waiting for Godot. Anchored by a tempestuous, fiery charisma, Godot’s remarkable performance is just as unforgettable in her small moments of zealous humanity (her almost childlike indignation at a war counsel willing to abandon soldiers as a strategic coup, or equivalent jubilation when tasting ice cream for the first time) as she is fiercely convincing tossing tanks or bridling enemies with a glowing lasso. Supporting her, Chris Pine is at his most disarmingly hysterical and irreverently lovable here, and provides a welcome anchoring of incredulous realism when the film threatens to topple into being too steeped in mythology. Danny Huston’s Red Skull clone hits all the requisite skulking, ominously pontificating adversarial notes, but he’s nowhere near as interesting as Elena Anayu’s luridly sinister and tragic Dr. Poison, who, disappointingly, is relegated to sidekick status. Thankfully, Diana’s remarkably diverse cabal of ‘Howling Commandos’ pals remain on the right side of fun without overstaying their welcome (though Ewen Bremner is just one bug-eyed nibble of haggis away from belonging in a live action cartoon). Finally, David Thewlis’ droll prissiness perfectly befits Diana’s befuddled ambassador to the human world, even if his range isn’t quite up for the challenge plot twists demand of him.

Wonder Woman isn’t perfect – there are expanses when Jenkins’ juggernaut pacing fumbles (especially an overlong expository origin), and it toes the line of being a touch too derivative, leaning on its superhero predecessors so liberally that key emotional moments threaten to belly flop from over-familiarity. Still, it’s only a fleeting wobble of tentativeness and creative laziness, that only serves to reinforce Robin Wright’s advice: Wonder Woman is at its (/her) best when she truly believes in herself. Still, when Godot is armoured up, flashing her gauntlets and kicking through walls, the film achieves an almost peerless sense of infectious awesomeness. Will its legacy abide? Well, I’ll let the waves of young girls (and boys!) jump-kicking and slamming their forearms together when stampeding out of the auditorium of my screening speak for themselves.

 

3 out of 5 stars

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Star Trek: Beyond (2016) – Movie Review

star trek beyond

The third mission of the U.S.S Enterprise in the rebooted alternative timeline version of the original “Star Trek” goes a little less boldly than its two predecessors, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The most notable change is that J.J. Abrams abandoned the captain’s chair (for the other franchise starting with “Star”) and handed duties to Justin Lin of the “Fast & Furious” franchise. On scripting duties, Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty) and Doug Jung take over from Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. Orci and Abrams still retain roles as producers, but that’s a pretty significant creative shift, and “Star Trek Beyond” ends up with a much different look and feel.

Tonally, 2009’s “Star Trek” and also “Star Trek Into Darkness” were a bit darker, more dramatic and theme-driven blockbusters. This was in following with the mold of most franchise reboots at the time, which demanded more grit and maturity to elevate ‘geeky’ pop-culture source material for 21st century sensibilities. “Beyond” jettisons that notion into the vacuum of outer space.

This should come as no surprise given Lin’s proclivities with the “Fast & Furious” movies, which made their fortune on wowing audiences with outlandish action sequences and a familiar, lovable ensemble cast. The formula works for the “Star Trek” universe, because nothing seems too ridiculous in space, plus most audiences are familiar with the current crew of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin and John Cho. They’ve earned a chance to just have some fun.

“Beyond” is definitely fun, maybe bordering on mindless. It trades in the dramatic elements and character-building conflict of the last two films for a standalone outer space adventure. In that sense, it’s more in the tradition of older “Star Trek” movies, which operated independently and felt like long “Star Trek” episodes.

After a few years of status quo space exploration, the Enterprise crew docks in a snow globe-like starbase called Yorktown. There, the Federation picks up a distress signal from an alien who says her ship and crew are in danger on the far side of a treacherous nearby nebula. The Enterprise springs into action, but after they navigate to the other end of the nebula, they’re viciously attacked by an alien force and stranded on the aliens’ planet.

This first major action set piece is a pretty exhilarating launching pad into the bulk of the story, and it comes not a moment too soon. In classic fashion, it splits the crew up into small groups, and the second act sees these teams trying to reunite and escape from the clutches of Krall (Idris Elba), who is looking for a weapon of mass destruction in the crew’s possession. A bit of a “Mission: Impossible” factor (another Paramount franchise with Simon Pegg) sneaks in here as well, though the plot isn’t quite as clever.

The movie really hearkens back to “Star Trek” episodes and memorable films that take place off-ship and bring the crew to a strange new world where the audience gets to discover a new species right along with them. No knowledge of “Trek” lore required to enjoy this one, yet it’s still immersive like any good sci-fi movie should be.

This shift away from narrative continuity between films, diving into important themes and shooting for emotional catharsis is almost a relief. No film should shy away from that challenge, but there’s something pleasant about the way “Beyond” lets go of those notions and opts for a classic form of geeky science fiction that’s more about dazzling fun, witty banter and big action.

By the same token, “Beyond” lowers the “Star Trek” franchise’s ceiling. It’s still possible to have an action-filled, funny sci-fi romp that challenges its characters and tackles universal ideas beyond merely that unity is better than divisiveness. Pegg and Jung’s script is fun, but it’s clear that they were encouraged to go simple.

So the “Star Trek” franchise has traded ambition for a little more reliability. Three films in, that’s not necessarily a bad swap. Ambitious blockbusters can fall flat, and some would argue “Into Darkness” already did. When you consider that “Star Trek” is not a series that’s ever had neatly packaged trilogies or other overarching narrative structures, switching to a more episodic format helps maximize longevity. In other words, we got a slightly lesser “Star Trek” film that’s better for the future of “Star Trek.”

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Star Trek (2009) – Movie Review

star trek

It’s a little-known fact that none other than Lucille Ball is responsible for the birth of “Star Trek”. As the titular head of Desilu Studios in the 1960’s, she green-lit former LA cop Gene Roddenberry’s idea of an intergalactic western and championed the series during its brief three-year run on NBC. It is amazing to consider how the franchise continues to thrive 43 years later, so much so that director J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have been able to re-imagine the legacy of the series without sacrificing the fidelity needed to satisfy the throngs of rabid fans who pushed the grosses north of the $200 million mark in its first week of release. As someone who is not remotely a Trekker, I have to admit the creators have done a fine job of reincarnating the familiar characters into their youthful counterparts and concocted an engaging, time-traversing plot that smartly avoids heavy exposition in favor of action and pyrotechnics. The result can be sometimes mind-numbing and trivial, but the 122-minute movie is never dull.

The densely populated plot throws us forward to the year 2233 (or backwards depending on your perspective on “Star Trek” lore) as the USS Kelvin confronts a major alien vessel captained by an embittered Romulan named Nero. An alternate timeline is revealed, and inevitable tragedies ensue. Years later, we meet the familiar characters from the TV series culminating in the USS Enterprise’s maiden voyage. James Kirk is a cocksure hothead with obvious Starfleet Academy potential, but he is haunted by the father he never knew. The half-human, half-Vulcan Spock is a brilliant student-turned-control freak by his nature but sometimes unable to reconcile the two sides of his identity. Their initially hostile relationship provides much of the film’s spark, as they one-up each other in the face of a common enemy in Nero. This provides a good excuse for the CGI-enhanced action sequences with a plethora of explosions and characters zooming in and out of frame. By the time you start to feel the excess and redundancy in this approach, the story wraps the viewer up in its core ethos – that the Enterprise crew is an extended rainbow coalition of a family even as entire civilizations are destroyed.

Abrams and crew are smart enough to recognize that the movie has to capture the heart of the original series in a way that doesn’t patronize fans yet engage us non-Trekkers. Most of the casting choices are solid, although a couple of them are rather distracting. With the lightweight veneer of a tween idol, Chris Pine captures the braggadocio and roughhewn manner of a youthful Kirk in a way that tethers him to Shatner’s real-life personality without doing an outright imitation of the elder actor. Even better is Zachary Quinto who has little latitude to vary Spock from fan expectation, yet he brings subtle but palpable currents of humanity to his stoic character. The rest of the crew is painted in broader strokes with Karl Urban coming closest to caricature as “Bones” McCoy; Anton Yelchin, laying on a thick, Cold War-era Russian accent as the extremely young Chekhov; and Simon Pegg (“Hot Fuzz”) pulling out all the comedy stops as exiled engineer Scotty. Somewhat more subtle are Zoë Saldana (“Guess Who”) as linguist specialist Uhuru, who has a surprising relationship with Spock, and John Cho (“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”) showing that he can handle action sequences with dexterity as neophyte helmsman Sulu.

Covered with latex, Eric Bana is hardly recognizable as Nero, although he makes the most of his character’s stock vengeance motives. It’s genuinely odd, however, to see Tyler Perry (“Madea Goes to Jail”) as the head of the Starfleet Academy and especially the still-doe-eyed Winona Ryder trying to look maternal as Spock’s human-side mother. Among cinema’s comic book franchises, this one is closer to “The Dark Knight” than “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” on the quality scale. Visually, it doesn’t disappoint with Daniel Mindel’s dazzling, kinetic cinematography and Scott Chambliss’ creative production design that mixes retro and futuristic elements seamlessly. At the same time, the convenient timeline jumble doesn’t really give rise to any complex moral quandaries beyond the importance of building friendships and trusting your colleagues. Nonetheless, the movie is propulsive entertainment which doesn’t tamper with its genesis and focuses squarely on the humanity of the familiar characters. For that accomplishment, we should all be grateful.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Star Trek: Into Darkness – Movie Review

star trek into darkness

Let me preface this review by saying I am not a Trekkie, watched very few episodes from the various Star Trek series on TV and didn’t care for the movies that were made prior to the J. J. Abrams reboot in 2009. So, I have no vested interest in what came before, I really just wanted to see a sequel which was as good if not better than the first one. And this movie delivers just that. It really is an amazing film with depth of story and shades of grey throughout the various plotlines. The performances by the actors are very good, with the exception of Zachary Quinto and Benedict Cumberbatch who are absolutely brilliant. If you’ve seen the trailer then you know that there are special effects galore, so no surprises there. My only disappointment was not seeing more of the extended crew as this film focuses very closely on the developing friendship between Spock and Kirk, but meh, it’s a minor complaint considering how much I enjoyed this film. This is the kind of movie that Iron Man 3 wishes it could have been.

 

10 out of 10